NEW YORK -- Last Wednesday -- three days before his unfortunate crash with just six laps to go at Kentucky Speedway that would send him to a 35th-place finish and out of the top 10 in NASCAR Sprint Cup points -- Clint Bowyer spoke the two words that he doesn't want to hear.
Before Kentucky, Bowyer was ninth in Cup points but without a victory this season, a fact that he knew put him in jeopardy if something bad were to happen between Kentucky and the 26th race of the season at Richmond on Sept. 10. Little did Bowyer realize his season would take a cruel turn when he tried to make it the distance without changing tires on his final pit stop at Kentucky. One of his tires blew, sending him into the wall and possibly out of the Chase.
Bowyer is generally easygoing, but mention the words "wild card" to the Richard Childress Racing driver from Emporia, Kans., and his tone becomes more serious.
The wild card is flawed, Bowyer told SI.com, and "it's a shame you have a championship structure built around points and there is a chance your 12 best cars won't be in it. They [NASCAR] have opened themselves up to that possibility."
Ironically, if the season ended today, Bowyer would have to make the Chase as a wild card because he is 12th in points. Under NASCAR's new wild card rules the final two Chase spots will be awarded to the drivers outside of the top 10 (but within the top 20) with the most wins. Without a victory, Bowyer would likely miss the Chase.
So Bowyer heads to New Hampshire Motor Speedway for his 200th career Cup start needing a victory. Luckily for him, it's one of his better race tracks: he drove to victory there in the opening race of the Chase in 2007 and last year. (His win in 2010, however, was marred after his car failed a post-race technical inspection.) He's also logged three straight top-10 finishes at the flat, one-mile New England oval.
After NASCAR takes the following weekend off, it heads to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the Brickyard 400 followed by a trip to Pocono.
Bowyer hopes the upcoming venues will be "Clint Bowyer type of race tracks."
"I think they are going to have to be," he admitted. "I'm focused on putting every week together the best I can."
Although Bowyer wants to rack up some victories, he doesn't want to make the Chase simply as a wild card. He wants to get back into the top 10, but is currently 13 points behind 11th-place Tony Stewart, another driver without a win this season, and 15 points behind 10th-place Denny Hamlin, who has one victory in 2011.
"We are a top-10 team," he said, "and we have to continue to work hard to make it that way when we get to the cutoff race at Richmond.
"The short tracks are nine times out of 10 where I run my best, but we have to turn these mile-and-a-half tracks around and get us some solid finishes there. If we can do that we are going to be right where we need to be. ... If I have to lean on a wild card ... then I'm not running good and didn't deserve to be in it [the Chase]. That's why I don't like wild card situations in anything. If you are in that situation you don't deserve to be in it any way -- you lucked into it."
When NASCAR came up with the wild card concept it used Jamie McMurray as an example. He won the two biggest races of the 2010 season -- the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard 400 -- but missed the Chase because he was 16th in the standings after Richmond.
NASCAR thought rewarding race winners with the final two Chase positions would set up a dramatic showdown at Richmond, where, for the last two years, the 12 Chase spots have all been virtually locked up, leaving little drama for the 26th race of the season. But the laws of unintended consequences have thrown that theory for a loop.
It looks like Positions 11 and 12 will be locked up before Richmond. David Ragan, currently 15th in points, leads the wild card standings after a win at the Daytona Coke Zero 400 on July 2. The real "wild card" at the moment is Brad Keselowski, who won a fuel-mileage contest at Kansas Speedway on June 5 and is currently 21st in points. That win alone wouldn't qualify him for one of the wild card positions, but he is only three points behind 20th-place Joey Logano.
Positions eight, nine and 10, on the other hand, will remain in play, especially if those three positions are held by drivers without a victory in 2011.
"Nine and 10 are way harder to get than 11 and 12," Bowyer said. "Your two last spots could be locked up and you'll have to race your way in for ninth and 10th. I'm not a fan of it at all as you can tell."
Because of this new format, a very big name is going to miss the Chase if they aren't able to secure a victory.
"That's exactly what I thought was going to happen," Bowyer said. "There is always somebody who wins a race that catches everybody off guard, and if all they have to be is in the top 20 in points, it opens the door up for too many bogus things to happen that [are] out of everybody's control.
"I'm not focused on having to be that wild-card spot; I'm focused on being OK no matter what."
Bowyer believes there are more than 12 teams capable of running at the front of these races and capable of putting 10 good races together inside that Chase. He believes there are 15 teams that, given the right circumstances, can win a championship.
With the wild card format Bowyer believes somebody is going to get screwed -- he just hopes it's not him.
"That's exactly right and probably two people are going to get screwed," he said. "There are two wild-card positions and both are going to go somebody that may not be as deserving as somebody else. Say two wins aren't enough and somebody wins three and you have Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart not in the Chase. That seems a little weird to me. That has been my opinion on it ever since. As soon as I heard the rule I thought it would be Marcos Ambrose who would win a road course race and get into the Chase that way."
Bowyer is hopeful that if a driver 20th in points becomes one of the two wild card entries, NASCAR would reconsider this format.
"I would hope so," he said. "I don't want to sound too negative about it because those are the rules and you have to make the best of it. If you asked me what I would do if I was the boss of NASCAR for a day, I wouldn't want a guy in 18th place in a 12-car Chase for the Championship. I want my best cars in no matter what."
Although Bowyer wants to make the Chase as a member of the top 10, he better develop a win-it-to-get-in-it attitude very soon.
"We're going to try to get a win," Bowyer promised. "I think we can. If we can minimize the bad days as much as we can and if we can do that we will be just fine. We've been close several times but haven't been able to put it together. But we will win."
The question is, will he be able to do it before it's too late?